Crafting a Better Rule Explanation Section

Surviving the first round of first year exams is a rite of passage for all law students. They are terrifying at first! However, having completed your first set of fall exams, you have a little more experience about what is expected of you from your law school professors. From the feedback you have received, you know the particular writing structure the professor prefers, whether it is IRAC or CRAC, or something else entirely. Some professors encourage you to throw ‘everything against the wall’ whereas other professors prefer minimalist responses. Regardless, this blog post is targeted to addressing the one piece of a law school exam essay that is universally important: the rule explanation section.

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4 Steps to a Better Rule Section

As you write a law school exam response, it is critically important to be able to identify the issue, and to be able to identify the facts that sway a particular case in one director or another. But, the tell-tale sign of a strong essay is one that can accurately discuss the applicable law.  


Assume that the reader of the essay knows very little about the law, and it is your role to introduce the legal concepts to the reader. Demonstrate your competency.

So, what does crafting a strong rule explanation section look like on an essay? Here is a four step process to get you started:
  • Step 1

    Always identify the authority or source of the law you are about to cite.  Establishing this builds credibility for your essay.  “This is the rule because First Amendment to the US Constitution says it is the rule” versus “This is the rule, and I am asking you to take my word for it.”

  • Step 2

    Lay out the rule and how it works.  This is where you can get to the nitty-gritty pieces of the rule.  Are there prongs?  Is this an elements or factors test that the court uses?  Impress the reader with your ability to clearly discuss the law.


    Writing Tip

    Write in short sentences. There is no need to be poetic in your language. Your professor will be impressed with your clarity, not with fancy language.

  • Step 3

    Provide an overview about how the rule has been applied in the past.  After you have provided the law, show the reader the contours and boundaries of the law.  Do not get long-winded here, but show enough that you understand the development of the law, and its limitations.


    Writing Tip

    Use sensible line breaks and literary cues to help the reader follow your train of thought. If you are switching to a different idea, make that switch clear to the reader with some sort of signal.

  • Step 4

    The catch-all.  Are there any prevailing policy concerns that must be recognized so that the rule can be understood?  Is there anything else a reader of your essay needs to know before you go on to analyze the case at hand?

This four step process to writing a rule explanation should provide a framework for you as the writer to effectively and efficiently transfer the law from your brain to your exam paper. Rather than randomly combining rules, be thoughtful in your approach. Why is this important? Because you are creating a framework from which you can discuss the law later in your rule application section.


Let us piece this all together in an example. You have been given a straightforward essay asking you to discuss whether the establishment clause has been breached by the US Government (a common essay topic for Constitutional Law classes). Specifically, this example deals with the constitutionality of prayer in schools. As you read this sample rule explanation, identify how the four steps were followed:

The First Amendment to the US Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law, respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Where a government program or legislation prefers one religion or religious sect over others, the court applies a strict scrutiny analysis. That is, the government must show that the action is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest. But, where a government action contains no religious preference, the Supreme Court will apply a different three prong test, as developed in the case Lemon v. Kurtzman: 1) The action must have a secular purpose 2) The primary effect must not advance or inhibit religion 3) the action must not foster excessive entanglement with religion. All three prongs must be met.  
Voluntary pupil prayer recitals during school hours in the school building have been invalidated as an establishment of religion, despite the fact that no religious sect was preferred or discriminated against. Even if noncompulsory, the USSC has struck down practices where a school has, through its religious practices, inadvertently and informally made nonbelievers feel coerced into complying with the religious conduct. These establishment rules were enacted to protect American citizens from religious persecution, a prevailing concern during the founding of the United States of America.

This is a strong rule explanation because it identifies the prevailing law, establishes how the law works, how the law has been applied in the past, and why the law is the way it is. With a rule explanation such as this, you would have strong footing to write a rule application section that takes the facts given to you in your essay prompt, and apply them to the law as outlined in your rule explanation section.
With your free 1L Kaplan Bar Review study resources, there is a tremendous amount of practice essays which you can use to help prepare for your final exams. The sample answers provide excellent prewritten rule explanation sections – language which you could incorporate into your own essays!